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The Serpent’s Promise, By Steve Jones

The gospel according to Steve Jones

Some book ideas are so high concept that you suspect they were workshopped to death during a marketing brainstorming session rather than springing from a single human mind.

While I don’t doubt that The Serpent’s Promise was the concept of the author and famous geneticist Steve Jones, his publisher’s publicity department must’ve been salivating and rubbing their hands with glee when he pitched it.

The Serpent’s Promise is, according to its subtitle, “the Bible retold as science”. Controversial! Ambitious! Profound! In actual fact, the book is none of these things. Instead The Serpent’s Promise is a very tenuously connected set of occasionally interesting scientific anecdotes and round-ups of recent theories, which uses the idea of the Good Book as the most feeble of hooks to hang itself on.

The way in which Jones links his scientific discussions to Bible passages is at times so half-hearted it’s embarrassing, and the idea that “the Bible was the first scientific textbook of all” and “the greatest scientific story ever told” (both quotes from the back cover) doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. So we begin, of course, with Genesis, which the author uses as the starting-off point for a decent discussion of the Big Bang, followed rather clumsily by an analysis of where the scientific community is with the theories of life on planet earth.

And so on, with the story of Adam and Eve leading to a discussion of DNA and genetics, the concept of the Virgin Mary loosely inspiring a look at the role of sex in animals and humans, and the story of Methuselah kicking off a half-baked round up of ageing and mortality. None of these chapters has anything new to say on the scientific front, and their apparent relevance to the Bible is remote at best. The first half of the book is based on Jones’s home turf of genetics, so it’s strange that it’s all very dry and boring, as if the author is reverting to stern lecturing mode.

As the book progresses and Jones gets further away from his specialisation, it actually becomes more engaging. His look at the Biblical tale of Noah’s flood and the subsequent field of geomythology that has grown up around it is fascinating and the writing here flows much better, taking in all manner of natural disasters as well as the concepts of insurance in nature and climate change.

The other truly interesting chapter here is about the nature of ecstatic religious visions and intense worship, and the relationship such experiences might have, both with artificial stimulation through natural drugs, and with various forms of mental illness.

But such enlightening passages are few and far between; too often the reader is left with superficial or boring scientific bluster that has little or no bearing on the famous book that The Serpent’s Promise is meant to be “retelling”. I’m not against book covers making grand claims, but the content has to back up those boasts. It doesn’t here.